Edvard Munch

Portraits of Anxiety

Edvard Munch, the Norwegian-born expressionist painter, was a prolific yet troubled artist preoccupied with themes of the human soul. He is best known for The Scream, one of the most iconic images in art history. Yet, it was his relentless experimentation across painting, graphic art, sculpture, photography, and film that secured his unique place in art history.

Born on December 12, 1863, in Kristiania (present-day Oslo), Norway, Munch grew up in a middle-class family plagued by illness. He lost his mother to tuberculosis at age five and his eldest sister to the same disease when he was 14. His father and brother also passed away when he was young, and another sister struggled with mental illness.

Illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.

Edvard Munch

Munch’s own health was fragile, and he often had to stay in bed through entire winters. Unable to attend school, he studied at home and developed a deep passion for drawing, creating landscapes, portraits, and reproductions of other artists’ works. After his mother’s death, his aunt Karen took over the household and encouraged his artistic pursuits. At 17, he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania, where his artistic potential truly began to flourish. He wrote in his diary that year, “It is my decision now to become a painter.”

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Munch found inspiration in the Kristiania Bohème, a group of writers and artists who advocated free love and rejected bourgeois ideals. Later, influenced by French Impressionism and the works of post-impressionists like Paul Gauguin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he moved beyond the local naturalist style.

No longer would interiors, people who knit and read be painted. There should be living people who breathe and feel, suffer and love.

Edvard Munch 

At 23, he participated in the Artists’ Autumn Exhibition with The Sick Child. The painting drew on his personal loss, portraying a young girl dying of tuberculosis. Its raw, unfinished style shocked many viewers but marked a pivotal moment in his artistic evolution, symbolizing his departure from realism.

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch, 1885-86

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch, 1885-86

In the spring of 1889, 25-year-old Munch organized his first solo exhibition in Kristiania and secured a year-long scholarship to Paris. There, he studied, visited galleries, and mingled with other expats. But tragedy struck when his father died, plunging Munch into grief. Isolated in the suburb of Saint-Cloud, he immersed himself in memories of loss, ultimately emerging with new ideas that sought to strip art down to the essentials of the human soul.

Night in Saint-Cloud by Edvard Munch, 1890

Night in Saint-Cloud by Edvard Munch, 1890

In 1892, Munch’s career took a dramatic turn when the Association of Berlin Artists invited him to exhibit. He presented a series of six provocative paintings under the collective title “Study for a Series: Love,” including early versions of Kiss, Jealousy, and Despair. These works, illustrating “the struggle between man and woman called Love,” shocked the German public and polarized the members of the Association. The exhibition was shut down after a week due to the uproar it caused, but the ensuing scandal catapulted Munch into fame among German modernists. Capitalizing on his sudden success, Munch moved to Berlin in 1893.

Despair by Edvard Munch, 1892

Despair by Edvard Munch, 1892

Kiss by the Window by Edvard Munch, 1892

Kiss by the Window by Edvard Munch, 1892

Though his newfound notoriety brought more exhibitions, Munch faced financial difficulties supporting his family. This financial strain, along with a desire to make his work more accessible to a broader audience, pushed him to focus on graphic art, creating etchings, drypoints, lithographs, and woodcuts.

Printmaking gave Munch creative freedom and allowed him to produce his art in larger quantities. He developed a unique method using a fret saw to cut his finished woodblocks into puzzle-like shapes along the pictorial contours. He inked each piece separately and reassembled them before printing, producing a striking effect that made his figures appear disconnected from each other and their environment.

Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm by Edvard Munch, lithograph, 1895

Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm by Edvard Munch, lithograph, 1895

Man and Woman I by Edvard Munch, woodcut, 1905

Man and Woman I by Edvard Munch, woodcut, 1905

In 1898, Munch met Mathilde “Tulla” Larsen. They began a relationship and traveled together, but Munch was plagued by the same ambivalence that marked all his relationships with women. For him, art was paramount, and in 1902 their relationship ended in a heated argument that resulted in a gunshot from a pistol he kept at home, injuring his hand. This incident haunted Munch but also triggered his creative reinvention.

Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder.

Edvard Munch

The same year, he unveiled “The Frieze of Life,” a collection of 22 works depicting various aspects of human existence, including Despair, Melancholy, Anxiety, Jealousy, and The Scream (also known as The Cry). Painted in 1893, The Scream would become one of the most famous paintings in history. Munch’s emotional state was vividly portrayed in these works, and his style varied according to his frequently changing emotional state.

Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1892

Melancholy by Edvard Munch, 1892

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

Interestingly, Munch often rearranged these paintings and created new versions of any that were sold. As a result, many of his works exist in multiple painted versions and prints based on the same image.

After the exhibition, his career improved, but his physical and mental health declined. He traveled restlessly, drank excessively, and struggled with constant anxiety. By 1908, on the brink of collapse, he admitted himself to Dr. Daniel Jacobson’s private clinic in Copenhagen, staying for several months.

Anxiety by Edvard Munch, 1894

Anxiety by Edvard Munch, 1894

After several years, Munch achieved complete abstinence from alcohol. He moved to Kragerø, a small fishing town in southern Norway, and permanently settled back in his homeland. From 1909 to 1916, he worked on decorating the University of Oslo’s assembly hall, creating vibrant, energetic paintings on gigantic canvases.

In 1916, Munch, now a renowned 52-year-old artist, bought the former plant nursery Ekely on Oslo’s outskirts. He moved into its Swiss-style villa, built several studios, and captured his surroundings with vibrant, dynamic brushstrokes. He also produced numerous self-portraits during this period.

Self-Portrait with palette by Edvard Munch, 1926

Self-Portrait with palette by Edvard Munch, 1926

After returning to Norway, Munch kept several dogs for companionship, including the Fox Terrier Fips, the Gordon Setter Boy, and the St. Bernard Bamse. He painted and drew his dogs frequently. Notably, Boy even enjoyed cinema outings, with tickets purchased by Munch.

Later in life, Munch adopted vegetarianism. In a letter to his friend Jens Thiis around 1932-33, he humorously advocated for it, writing, “Convert from Cannibalism! Do not eat your uncles, aunts, and little cousins with shiny eyes.”

In 1940, German soldiers took over Norway. This made Munch worry about his art, so he changed his will to give almost all of his works to the city of Oslo. On December 19, 1943, a week after his 80th birthday, the Filipstad explosion rocked Oslo. Awakened by the blast, Munch captured the event in a watercolor but soon fell ill. He never recovered and died in his sleep on January 23, 1944.

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them, and that is eternity.

Edvard Munch

In 1963, Oslo opened the Munch Museum to house his works. In 2012, The Scream sold at Sotheby’s for $120 million, setting a record as the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction and cementing its legacy as one of the world’s most significant artworks.

Words of wisdom

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” ―Edgar Allan Poe

“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” ―Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye...it also includes the inner pictures of the soul.” ―Edvard Munch

“The past could always be annihilated. Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do that. But the future was inevitable.” ―Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Bibliography

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